It doesn’t happen too often, but every once in a while I become aware of some new piece of data that explodes what I think I know about some area I’m interested in. New Testament scholar (and fellow Pentecostal) Larry Hurtado just dropped a bomb on me.
In his blog post How Long Were Manuscripts Used? he mentions something that had never occurred to me before. Not even a little bit.
One matter Houston addresses is how long manuscripts appear to have been in use. On the basis of manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus and from Herculaneum in particular, Houston notes numerous examples of manuscripts discarded when they were ca. 2–3 centuries old. Overall, he judges that the evidence indicates “a useful life of between one hundred and two hundred years for a majority of the volumes, with a significant minority lasting two hundred years or more” (p. 251). And, as he notes, the evidence from Qumran leads to a similar view.
This is of potential relevance for questions about the transmission of early Christian texts, especially those that became part of the NT. If early copies were intact for something approaching a century or more, then this could be a factor against notions that these texts were highly unstable and susceptible to major revision in the course of transmission. But we might adjust our thinking to allow for an earlier wearing-out of NT manuscripts through greater frequency of usage. OK. Let’s suppose that early manuscripts of NT writings typically wore out sooner: twice as fast (ca. 50–75 years)? That still means that the manuscripts from which copies were made remained available for potential checking for a fair period of time.
This probably means nothing to most of you, but this is huge if you’re interested in the textual reliability of the New Testament. This is surprising and strong evidence in the “Bible is reliable” column. Check out his comments section where Dr. Hurtado unpacks this a bit more.
Something Dr. Hurtado does not mention is that this makes it plausible that our earliest papyrus fragments (such as P52 or one of the handful of others from the mid-second century) might actually be direct copies from the autograph or only one generation removed. It’s impossible to know, of course. But the mere fact that we can even think it plausible is mind-boggling.
Dr. Hurtado got this data from UNC’s George W. Houston in his article “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 233–67.